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When “Police Reform” Came to Kenosha, Wisconsin

Jacob Blake was critically injured when cops shot him in the back on Sunday. Six years ago, a new law was supposed to bring change.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Six years before Jacob Blake was shot and critically injured by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the city made national headlines for a case that became the impetus for groundbreaking reforms concerning the use of deadly force. “Could it help provide a new faith in the justice system?” The New York Times asked at the time. Those reforms, however, were narrowly focused on making changes to how law enforcement investigates its own, the kind of reform strategy that once may have seemed like enough. On Sunday, when police shot Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, as he walked back to the car where his children reportedly sat waiting for him, it wasn’t a failure of reform but evidence of what a reform really does: It makes some changes, but it keeps in place law enforcement’s most central and lethal power.

Groups like Campaign Zero are emblematic of this approach. The organization’s “8 Can’t Wait” (or #8CantWait) campaign was released at the height of a national uprising over the police who killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. It offered eight proposals, like banning chokeholds and requiring a warning before shooting, which campaigners said would reduce police killings by 72 percent. The campaign was seen by abolitionists—the organizers and activists calling for an end to prisons, policing, and the carceral state—as an effort to water down their own demands. (After overwhelming opposition from the left, some of #8CantWait’s architects pulled back, and a graphic recommending “abolition” was added to the campaign website, alongside the original eight proposals.)

Focused on regulating which types of force police could used and how, and how to report the aftermath, #8CantWait seemed to assume that police would continue to kill. And in fact, that’s what the reforms had yielded elsewhere. Abolitionists and others pointed out that the country’s largest police forces had already implemented the vast majority of the recommendations, yet killings continued. The reforms #8CantWait proposed didn’t meaningfully confront or limit that lethal power but rather gave new policy frameworks under which police could continue to justify killing. 

Some of the other broader police reforms supported by Campaign Zero are either already enacted or close to being adopted in Kenosha, like mandating body cameras, which the county board voted in favor of, 22-0, this July. Independent investigations into police killings have been adopted statewide and were driven in part by a Kenosha police killing in 2004. Michael Bell, Jr., a 21-year-old white man, was shot point-blank and killed by an officer, who yelled out that Bell was reaching for another officer’s gun. His sister and mother witnessed this and say they tried to tell the officer that Bell was not.  

An investigation was concluded within 48 hours of the shooting in which Kenosha police internal affairs determined the officer had done nothing wrong. Bell’s father then brought in his own investigators. The Bell family brought a civil suit against the city and won a settlement (the department claimed no wrongdoing). With the money, Bell “bought every available billboard in Milwaukee,” All Things Considered reported in 2014. The billboard read, “When police kill, should they judge themselves?” Police unions came to the table, said Bell, but it was only “after we created enough ruckus.” A policy both sides supported was the result, making Wisconsin “the first state in the nation to mandate on a legislative level that if an officer is involved with a loss of life, that outside investigators must come in and collect the data and investigate that shooting.” 

The guidelines for independent investigations that followed were greeted optimistically as something that might even inspire other states. It’s one step forward, to no longer allow police officers under the same roof to investigate one another. But “independent” only excludes officers in the same department; still eligible includes those with whom the officers involved may have a conflict of interest. The fate of this independent investigation still comes down to the district attorney, who decides if it will result in indicting an officer.  

Inside law enforcement’s own institutions, its systemic abuses are not a secret. When the Wisconsin Supreme Court considered misconduct allegations against a Kenosha district attorney, involving planting evidence in a homicide case, the court’s investigator concluded that “corruption, lies … and deceit existed throughout the entire Kenosha criminal justice system.” It’s this system that is tasked with considering criminal charges against police officers when they kill. 

Police defenders are not wrong to identify the institution of policing itself as a target for activists, though they are overstating the degree to which even the modest reforms they oppose could do anything like dismantle law enforcement entirely. In June, Kenosha was the site of one of the “Back the Badge” rallies seen this summer across the country. “This country is under siege. This profession of law enforcement is under siege,” said former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a vocal Trump supporter known for his questionable pins and the rally’s headliner. For Clarke and others joining forces under the banner of Blue Lives Matter, the opposition is police reform of any kind, even when carried out by people who take pains to say nice things about the police. “They’re doing a good job,” an activist calling for reform, while still citing a good working relationship with the Kenosha department, told the local Fox news outlet. “They could do better, but we don’t want David Clarke coming down here and really stirring up what we have going on.” 

This cycle of death and reform demands, it seems, has only accelerated this summer. (Not even the coronavirus pandemic has slowed fatal police shootings, according to a new American Civil Liberties Union report, which are on pace with last year.) In Kenosha, the police who shot and severely injured Blake are now under investigation by the state’s Department of Justice. He remains in the hospital. Protesters took to the streets on Sunday, and they’re still there. A local Black Lives Matter activist who goes by Billy Violet told a reporter, “Until this city hears that the officer has been fired or what the update is, the city is going to keep burning.” It sounds like a return to the days immediately following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, when police cars burned, but it could sound like New York or Ferguson. That’s what drives the sentiment that it’s beyond past the time of softening reform calls with compliments for cops and to acknowledge that, yes, people are coming for the power of police.